Alabama Crimson Tide: Manti Te'o

The final game of the 2012-13 college football season is almost upon us. After more than five weeks of preparation, Alabama and Notre Dame will meet at Sun Life Field in Miami Gardens to battle for the BCS National Championship.

In advance of the game, let's look at five key storylines for the Crimson Tide:

1. The long layoff: UA coach Nick Saban thrives under these types of game situations. When everything is on the line and he has time for extra preparation, he's nearly unbeatable. In fact, he's 7-1 in championship games and he has never lost a national title game. But the layoff was interesting in another respect, too. The time away from the football field was invaluable for three players nursing injuries. Had Barrett Jones not had a full five weeks, who knows if he'd be playing. Linebacker Denzel Devall would not have been able to participate after hurting his knee. And what about wide receiver Kenny Bell? It's a surprise the junior is even on a football field right now after breaking his leg in the Iron Bowl.

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Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the linebackers.

Alabama: What Alabama lost in experience from a season ago, the Crimson Tide made up for with depth. Coach Nick Saban loves to create personnel packages for every situation, whether it be third-and-long or fourth-and-goal, and with versatile linebackers like Adrian Hubbard and C.J. Mosley, he had the options to make his schemes work effectively.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireManti Te'o gets the headlines but Notre Dame's other linebackers are playmakers as well.
Mosley was the most productive linebacker this season, leading the team with 99 tackles. The last Alabama defender to break the century mark? Former All-American and eventual first-round pick Rolando McClain. Mosley sits one tackle away from 100 despite not being the clear-cut starter. He shares time with both Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest at inside linebacker depending on the formation and down and distance.

Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are the primary options at outside linebacker. Their talent is undeniable but they've had their ups and downs. Hubbard leads the team with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Talented freshman Denzel Devall figures into the rotation as well. Another rookie to keep an eye on is converted defensive end D.J. Pettway, who could play at Jack where he can utilize his skill rushing the passer, an area Alabama has struggled to gain consistency.

Notre Dame: Saban called Notre Dame's front seven the best he's seen in college football this season, and it's led by a linebacker who was a strong contender to become the first purely defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Of course Johnny Manziel took home the bronze statue, but it did nothing to diminish the play of Manti Te'o.

Te'o saved his best for last, racking up the Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus and Walter Camp Awards his senior year. He finished 59th in the country with 103 tackles, helping the Fighting Irish to the No. 1 scoring defense. He's the total package, with the strength to take on linemen in run support and the speed to track down receivers over the middle. If there's a linchpin to the Notre Dame defense, it's Te'o.

Outside of Te'o, Notre Dame has a pair of future NFL players in Dan Fox and Prince Shembo. Fox, who has 57 tackles, starts at inside linebacker and Shembo, who leads the team with 12 quarterback hurries, is the Irish's best pass rusher at outside linebacker. Carlo Calabrese, Danny Spond and Ishaq Williams round out the bulk of the rotation at linebacker in Brian Kelly's 3-4 alignment.

Final Verdict: Notre Dame's star power at linebacker isn't without reason. Te'o is capable of changing the outlook of the game, especially when it comes to Alabama's ability to run the football. If he can stuff the run and force the burden on the passing game, the Irish could be in good shape as UA has struggled in pass protection throughout the season, most recently in the first half against Georgia. Unlike some of the top defenses Alabama has faced, Notre Dame can stop the run and affect the pass. The Fighting Irish rank in the top 25 overall in rushing defense, passing defense, yards allowed and sacks. While Alabama has depth at linebacker, it doesn't have the top producers like Notre Dame.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-0) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1)

Jan. 7, 8:30 p.m. ET, Miami (ESPN)

Notre Dame take from Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna: Haven't you heard? Notre Dame is back. No, not BCS-bowl back. BCS national title game back.

The No. 1 Irish ran the table in the regular season and are the only bowl-eligible team left that is spotless in the loss column. They navigated a tough stretch featuring opponents from five BCS conferences and two independents. And now they will get one more chance to prove this was no fluke on Jan. 7, when they take on a team from the one conference they have yet to face in 2012: the SEC, winners of the past six national titles.

The key for Notre Dame all season has been the defense, which gives up just 10.33 points per game and has surrendered just 10 touchdowns all season long, with one of those scores coming from the opposing team's defense (Stanford). The Irish showed their toughness in the trenches by utilizing goal-line stands to hold off a pair of Pac-12 opponents in Stanford and USC, and their offense has started to come along after some early-season missteps.

Redshirt freshman Everett Golson went the final three games without getting yanked for performance issues, and he has turned the ball over just once during that stretch. He has been aided by a ground game averaging 202.5 yards per game, and he has flashed his ability to run much more as the season has progressed. He has rushed for 316 yards in his last seven games after netting negative-11 yards on the ground through his first four outings, in which he was benched twice in favor of Tommy Rees.

Speaking of rushing … good luck moving the ball on the ground against this defense. Notre Dame ranks fifth nationally against the run, surrendering just 92.42 yards per game. The Irish did not give up a rushing touchdown until the eighth game of the season, against Oklahoma's Blake Bell. Heisman candidate Manti Te'o gets much of the attention, and he deserves every bit of it, but don't overlook future early-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt up front.

For all the national talk about the SEC, America probably won't see something much further from last year's title game, as the Irish fit the blueprint of a successful SEC team this season.

Alabama take by TideNation's Alex Scarborough: Believe it or not, the Crimson Tide are finishing the season right where they started. Despite losing eight starters to the NFL draft in April -- including three first-rounders and one Heisman Trophy finalist -- the expectation for Nick Saban's squad remained "BCS or bust" with a preseason No. 2 ranking. After beating Georgia to win the SEC championship on Saturday night, No. 2 is where Alabama will finish in the final BCS Standings of the season.

The talent in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was never in question. Five straight top-3 recruiting classes filled the coffers, and the coaching staff used their young players wisely, incorporating a pair of potential Freshmen All-Americans in running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper. With junior AJ McCarron under center again, the offense has gone to new heights.

The defense rallied around a handful of veterans to maintain its top-dog status. Alabama led the country in total defense for the second straight season after losing stars like Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick , Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. A fresh set of leaders emerged to reinvent the Alabama defense as something possibly less dominant, but more stingy. The Tide created more takeaways and sacks than a year ago, and practiced a bend-but-don't-break mindset in the biggest games.

Like last season, Alabama's path to the national championship game was not without a speed bump, and this time it wasn't LSU blocking the Tide's way. A week after surviving Death Valley and the LSU Tigers, Alabama was shocked at home by freshman phenom Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies, dropping the Tide out of the title race from No. 1 to No. 4 in the BCS Standings. A week later, No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon fell on the same night, paving Alabama's way back to Miami.

Alabama assured itself a berth in the title game by beating No. 3 Georgia in remarkable fashion, surviving an SEC-title record five lead changes. It was the Tide's fourth win against a ranked team this season. Net up is a chance for a fifth, against No. 1 Notre Dame. Alabama will be the seventh consecutive SEC team to compete in the BCS National Championship Game. It's Alabama's third trip to the title game in four years.


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